Police in Indian Kashmir are on alert to prevent attacks against women who have been warned by a little-known Muslim militant group to conform to Islamic dress code and wear veils. The warning has raised alarm among women in the Kashmir valley.
There was a heavy presence of armed police outside women's schools and colleges Saturday in the Kashmiri capital Srinagar. But this failed to reassure women in the insurgency-torn region, and most of them only stepped out of their homes wearing cloaks or veils.
Last month, a previously unknown militant group, the Lakshar-e-Jabbar, set a Saturday deadline for women to conform to the Islamic dress code. The warning sparked panic because it came after two incidents in which members of the Lakhsar-e-Jabbar group claimed responsibility for throwing acid at women who were not wearing veils in downtown Srinagar.
The main Kashmiri rebel groups have disassociated themselves from the campaign. They say imposing the Islamic dress code is on their agenda, but not their priority. These Muslim militant groups describe the campaign as a ploy by Indian intelligence agencies to defame the separatist movement in Kashmir.
Kashmiri Muslim religious leaders and separatist leaders have also strongly criticized the move to enforce the Islamic dress code, saying Islam does not approve of coercion in matters of religion.
Maulvi Umar Farooq is the head of Kashmiri Muslims and a prominent separatist leader. He says the principles of Islam have to be upheld, but this must only be done by religious and social organizations through education and debate, not force. "It is my duty to preach but not to force anybody and not to take measures by which we can threaten the lives of innocent people by throwing acid on their face," he says. "This is totally unapproved of."
Since the separatist insurgency erupted in 1989, Muslim militants have banned beauty parlors and liquor shops in the territory. Attempts have also been made on earlier occasions to impose an Islamic dress code, but the campaign failed because it was not taken seriously.
This time, however, shop owners in Srinagar's main commercial center say that a huge number of veils have been sold in recent weeks to women who are not taking any chances. Women say the condemnation from main militant groups does not guarantee their safety and point out that the Lakshar-e-Jabbar group has threatened action against those defying the dress code.